by Charles Panati
There is a vast difference between the original meaning of “honeymoon” and its present-day connotation – a blissful, much-sought seclusion as prelude to married life. The words antecedent, the ancient Norse hjunottsmanathr, is, we’ll see, cynical in meaning, and the seclusion is bespeaks was once anything but blissful.
When a man from a Northern European community abducted a bride from a neighboring village, it was imperative that he take her into hiding for a period of time. Friends bade him safety, and his whereabouts were known only to his best man. When the bride’s family abandoned their search, he returned to his own people. At least, that is a popular explanation offered by folklorists for the origin of the honeymoon; honeymoon meant hiding. For couples whose affections were mutual, the daily chores and hardships of village life did not allow for the luxury of days or weeks of blissful idleness.
The Scandinavian word for “honeymoon” derives in part from an ancient Northern European custom. Newlyweds, for the first month of married life, drank a daily cup of honeyed wine called mead. Both the drink and the practice of stealing brides are part of the history of Attila, king of the Asiatic Huns from A.D. 433 to 453. The warrior guzzled tankards of the alcoholic distillate at his marriage in 450 to the Roman princess Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian III. Attila abducted her from a previous marriage and claimed her for his own – along with laying claim to the western half of the Roman Empire. Three years later, at another feast, Attila’s unquenchable passion for mead led to an excessive consumption that induced vomiting, stupor, coma, and his death.
While the “honey” in the word “honeymoon” derives straightforwardly from the honeyed wine mead, the “moon” stems from a cynical inference. To Northern Europeans, the term “moon” connoted the celestial body’s monthly cycle; its combination with “honey” suggested that all moons or months of married life were not as sweet as the first. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, British prose writers and poets frequently employed the Nordic interpretation of honeymoon as a waxing and waning of marital affection.